Show Case

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: The Americans

Another brilliant show that ended not long ago (and I only recently caught up with the final seasons):

er-theamericansThe Americans (S1–6)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A period drama, happening in Washington of 1980s, it focuses on a pair of KGB agents working under the disguise of a typical American married couple. The show focuses on the question of lies and deception, imagining the mentality of people whose entire life is a facade and what happens when this facade begins to crumble. Also, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes spy stuff, if that’s more your jam.

How I found it:
When it first aired, I saw a trailer and found it interesting – though it was a trailer for an entirely different show, a sort of action-packed satire and not this existential psychological drama that we were eventually graced with. So I’m glad both that the trailer got me interested in the show and that it misrepresented it.

Summary judgment:
That might be the most thought-provoking, truly adult show I have seen in recent years.

Best things about it:
No show ever has made me and my husband discuss it as much as this one. We would pause the show to vent our emotions about the story and the characters and we would carry the conversations after we finished watching, analyzing the motives and illusions of the protagonists. Of course, being from Central Europe, we can’t look at KGB as a stock action-drama Agency but we have a more visceral reaction to the issue.
The show’s focus on the inner drama of the characters: their psychological motivations and limits, their humanity (or its lack sometimes) catapults the show so, so far away from any James Bond-nonsense that the theme might suggest.

Worst things about it:
Sometimes, rarely enough, the show will veer into more action-packed Cold War thriller one might expect (particularly badly in season four) and while this would be fully acceptable and maybe even enjoyable somewhere else, on The Americans it feels like a wasted opportunity for further moral explorations.

Other pluses:
✤ What I said so far will probably sound to some of you very much as anti-praise and a recipe for a perfectly boring show, sort of Bergman about Russian spies. But that would not take into account how tight most of the story is and how invested one feels in the plotlines.
✤ Matthew Rhys as Philip is breathtaking. He creates such a nuanced, heartbreaking performance that you want to hug him, shake him and slap him, sometimes in the same scene. But mostly you just keep rooting for him to do the right thing.
✤ Most of the other performances are also very convincing and memorable.
✤ Perhaps most importantly this is such a smart show. It never tells you too much, at the risk of confusing you or allowing for different, conflicting interpretations of the characters’ motives and feelings. Instead, it allows you to draw your own conclusions.
✤ The 1980s work in this vision – the period feels lived-in not caricatural, as it is often shown. I read that the producers had to limit the 1980s fashion so as not to make it distracting and in the first season I was a bit surprised to see this visually calmer version of the 80s but then I really got used to it. Also, the show has a distinctive visual style, with the muted color palettes (so much brown).

Other minuses:
✤ Keri Russell as Elizabeth does not, unfortunately, rise to Rhys’s standard (but calling this tour de force “standard” is probably unfair) and her character for most of the series is odious in her blind devotion to a child’s notion of communism.
✤ That’s not a minus exactly but the show does not give a lot of historical background for its political plots. I wonder if people from other areas of the world realize just how bad Philip and Elizabeth’s employers are. But again, it’s part of the smartness of the show, letting you figure things out for yourself.

How it enriched my life:
I rarely watch shows with such excitement and so many emotions about whatever’s going on. This was also a bonding experience for me and my husband because of all the discussions it provoked.

Fun fact:
Philip and Elizabeth constantly wear disguises and most of them are unbelievably silly. You would think they couldn’t possibly work but then again I have no idea how people are ever able to describe anyone to the sketch artist so they would certainly work on me. (Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to accurately describe things like the chin or nose of my closest friends from memory.)

Follow-up:
We had a huge break between seasons 3 and 4 so not everything happening was crystal clear and this is a great reason for a re-watch some time in the future. Also, I’m possibly there for Matthew Rhys’s next project (unless it’s something awful).

Recommended for:
People looking for a smarter kind of show.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: The 50 States

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Nashville

Another show I watched regularly ended quite recently so let me share with you a few reflections on the whole of

er-nashvilleNashville (S1–6)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A TV show about the country music industry in Nashville, focusing, at least at first, on two divas: Rayna James played by Connie Britton and Juliette Barnes played by Hayden Panettiere. The show had six seasons, two of which happened on another TV station after the first one cancelled it, and most of the initial premise didn’t last past season one but it also sometimes dealt with local politics and a lot of family drama and always provided a lot of sudsy entertainment, even at its worst.

How I found it:
Six years ago when the show debuted I was quite up to date on all the new TV happening (not so much since) so I was immediately interested in it from the preview. And the first season really grabbed my interest.

Summary judgment:
It never lived up to the initial promise but I still enjoyed the bumpy ride.

Best things about it:
Season one and what the show tried to do then promised a quality story about an interesting corner of the world and it did deliver a part of it. I didn’t care so much about the diva rivalry and I didn’t mind when they dropped it but, unfortunately, together they also gave up on more mature aspects of the original story and replaced them with a whole bunch of random guest stars and increasingly ridiculous plotlines.

Worst things about it:
As hinted above, the fact that the show didn’t manage to remain what it set out to be, instead becoming a true soap opera with many caricatures instead of characters and many ridiculously contrived stories. It gradually gave up on treating Nashville as an interesting place worth showing, replacing the local color with generic settings. And after season one the music got worse, too.

Other pluses:
✤ Still, some of the music was pretty good. True, most of it veered toward bland pop (which I think is true of most popular country today?) but every now and then they offered a song that stood out, particularly those sang by the marvelous (and fan-hated, for some reason) Clare Bowen.
✤ Clare Bowen deserves a separate bullet point because while her character, Scarlett, rarely got a worthy storyline and was mostly manipulated into boring would-be romances, she always managed to deliver a heartfelt performance and she sings beautifully.
✤ Special mention to other actors I enjoyed on the show: Charles Esten, Jonathan Jackson, Aubrey Peeples and Oliver Hudson (another hated couple) and, unsurprisingly, Connie Britton. Also, the Stella sisters, sometimes. In general, many of the actors and the relations they build between the characters lift the show above a soap, even when writing doesn’t, and make the stories more human and believable.

Other minuses:
✤ From season three the shows gets a bit boring. In fact, when I was trying to rewatch all of it, I only got so far as the beginning of season three and gave up. I did enjoy revisiting the first one, though.
✤ Most of the later storylines are so random, centering on new characters that’s just been dropped on us and giving them up later without proper resolution. It often feels like the creators weren’t sure what they wanted to do with the characters in the long run.
✤ I know she was a fan-favorite but I almost never liked Juliette or missed her when she disappeared from the show for episodes at a time. There’s just something about Hayden Panettiere in this role that grates on my nerves.

How it enriched my life:
While it was never the most exciting watch of the week for me, it almost always delivered an hour of pleasure. And even though the show grew weaker and weaker as the seasons went by, I was still sorry to see it go.

Fun fact:
I’m not saying I did buy I’m not saying I didn’t listen to some of the soundtrack albums, particularly for the first two seasons.

Follow-up:
Ah, I wish there was one but so far I have found nothing to fill this hole in my heart that is reserved for a show about mostly acoustic music and the drama it causes among those who sacrifice their life to it. Granted, it’s a very specific hole.

Recommended for:
People looking for a slightly better soap for whom its saturation with country music is a good thing not a deterrent.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Next time: Tropic of Cancer

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: 13 Reasons Why

er-13reasonswhy13 Reasons Why (S1)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
An adaptation of a YA book by Jay Asher. Hannah Baker commits suicide and, like an asshole, leaves behind a set of cassettes to torment those who led her to this end, or at least to explain her reasons. The rather bland book (yes, I read it, a long time ago) turns into a dark TV show that aims to show high school at its worst.

How I found it:
Since I read the book and didn’t care for it, at first I ignored the ravings about the show but finally I gave in and watched the first season.

Summary judgment:
It’s better than the book but still failed to impress me.

Best things about it:
For the most part it’s very competent, turning the story into almost a thriller (at least in the first half) and fairly efficiently using the difficult tool of flashbacks. It does make you want to know what happens next and who else is on the tapes. Some actors do a great job and I appreciate the lack of cuteness which is typical of most high school stories and which the book didn’t manage to eschew.

Worst things about it:
The further it goes, the more it feels exploitative and unconvincing. Also, it really drags. Every episode could be shorter and the whole season could have fewer episodes in general.

Other pluses:
✤ Hannah’s mom, played by Kate Walsh, stands out in her depiction of grief and vulnerability. Often, she seems taken from a different, less confused show. I don’t even remember Hannah’s parents from the book so maybe it was an attempt to ground her story more and if so, it worked.
✤ Clay kind of grew on me. He really irritated me in the first episodes but I liked his path towards a more active stand.
✤ Other good depictions include Jessica (a hard role to pull off, I’m sure) and Justin.

Other minuses:
✤ One could expect that from the synopsis, I guess, but pretty much all the characters (including Hannah) are really unpleasant for most of the time, which doesn’t add to the enjoyment of watching.
✤ A lot of the show felt to me like a fearmongering piece directed at parents with kids in high school. I hate fearmongering.
✤ The violence towards the end becomes really hard to watch and, frankly, unnecessary to tell the story.

How it enriched my life:
Meh, it was mostly a way to pass a few evenings when I was too exhausted to do anything else. Also, one time it gave me a nightmare (but that’s the opposite of enrichment).

Fun fact:
My high school was nowhere near as traumatic, I can’t imagine for anyone. But then again, we don’t have this whole jock culture at all (or we didn’t ages ago when I was in high school).

Follow-up:
I’m not watching season 2. I read some spoilers online and there’s nothing for me there.

Recommended for:
People who like to watch miserable teenagers and be glad they’re no longer them. Perhaps (though I doubt it, frankly) miserable teenagers who want to wallow?

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: Among Others

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Rotten Tomatoes

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Sex and the City (movie)

Once I finished the six seasons of Sex and the City proper, I figured I’d re-watch the first movie that followed in 2008 because I had a (wrong) impression that it completed the characters’ stories.

er-sexandthecitymovieSex and the City (the movie)

Category: Movies

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A continuation of the show made in 2008 to the great excitement (and then disappointment) of fans, it tells the further story of the four friends but mostly of Carrie’s failed attempt at marrying Big. However, it mostly serves as a thinly-veiled vehicle for product placement.

How I found it:
I watched this movie soon after it came out and while I didn’t love it, I didn’t pay attention to how bad it actually was.

Summary judgment:
Wow. I don’t so much mind the flat story and the bad jokes but the world view I found downright offensive.

Best things about it:
The clothes have gotten so extravagant as to become a form of art and I like the visual part of the whole thing (except for Parker’s general look).

Worst things about it:
I guess to me the worst part, and the most surprising one, was the body shaming the women subject one another to. They criticize one another over weight-gain and body hair, not the kind of supportive friendship the show sold us on, and not the kind of message I’m comfortable with from a franchise masquarading as “feminist.”
On a more general level, the writing fails hard. Everything drags as if they needed to fill the space between advertisements (for Starbucks, for Mercedes-Benz, for all the fashion brands) and didn’t quite know how. Carrie’s marriage drama feels so contrived you just want to tell her to get a hold of herself: throughout the entire movie when we’re supposed to feel sorry for her I kept wanting to shake her because yes, the whole thing was her fault and didn’t merit all the hysterics.

Other pluses:
✤ Carrie’s potential apartment is pretty, I guess, and the library where her wedding doesn’t happen looks great, too.
✤ Charlotte’s mutts. Yes, scraping the bottom here.

Other minuses:
✤ I always found it surprising how Miranda is one-sidedly villified over her anger with Steve, who cheated on her. I feel she has every right to be angry and the film never acknowledges that. In what world is Big’s transgression worse?
✤ Ugh, the terrible jokes. It’s like somebody belatedly remembered the “comedy” part in the romantic comedy and added the funniest thing of all, diarrhea.
✤ Yes, Samantha’s sex object of a neighbor looks good but this kind of reversed-male gaze (I’m not sure if it’s called female gaze in a case like this, when it’s objectifying a man) made me really uncomfortable.

How it enriched my life:
It didn’t. The whole thing should’ve ended with the show. This is such a clear, unneccessary money grab.

Fun fact:
Apparently even Cynthia Nixon doesn’t like the “happy ending” of the movie? It’s an internet fact though so don’t hold me to it.

Follow-up:
I’m never watching it again. Also, guys, I did see the second movie back when it came out but it was so abysmal that even this movie seems okay by comparison so I’m not re-watching or reviewing it.

Recommended for:
Completionist fans of the show who don’t mind having their good opinion sullied. Also, people who don’t know the show but like really empty, mediocre romantic comedies without much humor or romance.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Next time: The Dud Avocado

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: Sex and the City (show)

Sex and the City was one of the more exciting shows of my high school years. I would wait for it on Saturday evenings (I wasn’t all that popular, in case you were misinformed) and feel somewhat naughty for watching it. But the show is going on twenty now and watching it today feels different.

er-sexandthecityshowSex and the City (the show)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
One of the most iconic TV shows before people talked of any golden eras in TV, tells the story of Carrie Bradshaw, her three best girl friends and their quest for love and sex that lasted six seasons (and two terrible movies that barely count).

How I found it:
I watched two or three seasons on TV, though not quite regularly, and then I systematically re-watched everything a couple of years ago. This time now was my more or less third watch.

Summary judgment:
This time didn’t impress me as much as the previous ones. In fact, parts of it left me bored.

Best things about it:
Twenty years ago, in its own way, the show was fairly revolutionary in its portrayal of a certain kind of relationships: both their psychological and physiological aspect. At least back then, it felt honest and surprisingly open.
The writing is often very smart and funny, with clever juxtapositions of different storylines and surprising conclusions to them.

Worst things about it:
I would say seasons one and six because I enjoyed them the least. But from a more general point of view, if you don’t buy this show for what it is, you will be irritated by so many things: its outdated approach to homosexuality, the vacuity of the characters and their ridiculous economic conditions, their occasional cruelty and forced problems. Bergman this ain’t.

Other pluses:
✤ Some of the clothes and, to a lesser extent, some interiors are lovely to look at for the sheer aesthetic pleasure.
✤ The many things Miranda says.
✤ The characters (arguably except for Carrie) all develop and grow, which is one justification for six seasons of a show like this.

Other minuses:
✤ I once read somewhere that the show owed its success to Parker’s likability but I mostly find her childish and irritating, particularly in the moments when she’s trying for endearing. I don’t expect you to remember but there’s a scene in which she talks about Aidan’s “nook”, which perfectly embodies everything I dislike about her.
✤ In the first season or two the show is still looking for its style, with the mockumentary street interviews and too many random characters. It grows better when it gains the courage to drop these crutches.

How it enriched my life:
Now it hasn’t particularly. But the first time I watched it I was in high school and I learned stuff from the show (often very theoretical stuff but isn’t most knowledge, particularly in high school?). The second time I really admired the writing and got quite interested in all the long-term stories.

Fun fact:
Not a single one of Carrie’s relationships was halfway functional. But I always liked Charlotte and Harry. Theirs was a fun story.

Follow-up:
I did watch the movie. We’ll talk about it. I might get back to the show some time but I need to forget most of the stories because this time it bothered me how much I remembered what was going to happen.

Recommended for:
Single ladies. Fans of the early 2000s culture. People in love with New York or, I guess, Sarah Jessica Parker.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Let’s whine about the movie

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Rotten Tomatoes

Wildly Enthusiastic Review: Whiplash

I’ve finally watched a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for a while and it didn’t disappoint.

er-whiplashWhiplash

Category: Movies

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
Damien Chazelle (who must be a jazz fanatic) wrote and directed this 2014 movie about a music student, played convincingly by Miles Teller, who gets a chance at the top distinction in his school: joining a demanding band that can jumpstart his career. The only problem is that the instructor (J.K. Simmons, great as usually) will stop at nothing to push his players. Also, so much drumming.

How I found it:
A few years ago I saw the trailer and I immediately loved it for a couple of reasons. I meant to watch it but, of course, didn’t and I’ve only caught up now.

Summary judgment:
I liked everything about this movie, on this very cerebral, admiring level.

Best things about it:
It’s smart but never boring; it cranks up the drama but at the same time the stakes remain debatable: not everyone would give up their life and dignity for a spot on a band (which only makes it more fascinating).
My favorite part of the whole story is the relationship between the two antagonists: how they destroy and save each other at the same time because they remain two sides of the same obsessively ambitious coin. This might be the best written protagonist-antagonist relation I’ve seen in a long time.

Worst things about it:
Honestly, the only thing that comes to mind is I slightly wish for more female presence in the story (even if just as some other musicians in the band). But I don’t have many complaints. They even made jazz exciting.

Other pluses:
✤ I like how this story belongs very much to Andrew. It’s his obsession with excellence and achievement that makes him a perfect victim but also he never really feels like a victim. Small things you notice in the plot combine to build the character, e.g. at first it’s surprising to see no relations between him and the other students but slowly it all begins to add up. In a way, the less we like Andrew as a person, the more he becomes a worthy adversary for his teacher.
✤ I was genuinely surprised at the final part, after everything that happens in the school.

Other minuses:
I was maybe a little tired of the relative ugliness of Andrew’s surrounding, which comes from filming them so realistically but that’s my personal bias for pretty interiors.

How it enriched my life:
It made me think and admire the storytellers. It also made me appreciate the art of drumming.

Fun fact:
I always had an appreciation for drumming, as a matter of fact. Actually, I used to fantasize that if I were to be in a rock band, I would definitely be the drummer (mostly because I’m completely tone-deaf and the rhythm is all I could manage; except I couldn’t, probably, especially once I’ve seen this film and realize how hard it is). I even wanted to take drumming lessons for a while but I never wanted it hard enough to follow through.

Follow-up:
So apparently the creator, Damien Chazelle, wrote La La Land? And I admit I’ve watched it since but it’s not worth a write-up.

Recommended for:
People who admire a psychological drama of abuse and revenge. People who wanted to be professional musicians and need reasons why it’s not that great.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Next time: Jane

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Show Case

Mildly Enthusiastic Review: True Blood (S2)

As I promised, I did revisit the second season of True Blood. The first time it aired, it had me gripped, waiting excitedly for each new episode. I was still in the haze of love for season one and expected the show to reach new heights. (Spoiler: it didn’t necessarily.)

er-trueblood-2True Blood (season 2)

Category: TV shows

Find it on: IMDb

What it is:
A new serial killer seems to be prowling Bon Temps, this one with a penchant for the victims’ hearts. Tara gets increasingly involved with the cult-like household of Maryann while Jason travels to Dallas to join another cult. Meanwhile, in a mostly unrelated story, Eric asks Sookie to help him clear a mystery.

How I found it:
I didn’t even have to search.

Summary judgment:
It’s still better than any later seasons and still much more focused but it doesn’t have the sharpness of season one.

Best things about it:
Most of the show falls into two separate plotlines and the one involving Sookie I find quite exciting. I was always curious about vampire politics on the show and we get glimpses of that. I like how the creators realized the inherent attractiveness of Eric and just ran wild with it. And I find Godric such a good twist on the whole moral dilemma of the existence of vampires. Jason’s story also works and the fanatics he gets involved with shine a new light (heh, I know) on the human-vampire conflict. It is a tragedy of modern television how later seasons will do literally nothing with any of these themes.

Worst things about it:
Pretty much everything to do with the other storyline – the maenad – until the very moment when Sookie and Bill finally get involved with that. But until then the whole story had me so bored I only kept myself from fast-forwarding to Dallas scenes through my uncommon restraint. The failure of this storyline only draws attention to all the (numerous) faults of Sam and Tara.

Other pluses:
✤ Bill and Sookie surprised me with the tenderness and loyalty of their relationship and how its portrayal mostly avoids cheap soap opera tricks. (This will change so hard.)
✤ You can only appreciate it knowing future seasons but new motifs that will be picked up later are introduced quite smoothly (most of them, anyway).
✤ Widening the scope from Bon Temps to Dallas and showing more urbane (in a Texas way) vampires makes the mythology interesting.
✤ Jason gets to show off his comedic talent. His lines tend to be overwritten every now and then but that’s not Ryan Kwanten’s fault.
✤ While I don’t care for the storyline as a whole, the way the maenad reveals the brokenness of the town’s people works at times.

Other minuses:
Ugh, Daphne. I forgot about her and didn’t relish the reminder. I’m not a huge fan of Eggs either and particularly of Tara with him.

How it enriched my life:
Despite the unequal charms of this season, it still gave me a lot of pleasure and excitement.

Fun fact:
As far as I remember from the book (I read it ages ago), Godric was more complex there. Living as long as he did, he outgrew his times and his preference for children became unacceptable, which is quite a different idea from this saint we get on the show.

Follow-up:
I guess I will watch season three during some flu or a long trip.

Recommended for:
Those ready to accept that True Blood was only incredibly brilliant in season one and still want to revisit Sookie and the gang. Fans of vampire stories.

Enjoyment:
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Next time: Heathers (of 1989)

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